Nate Silver has left the biz. The most celebrated political reporter in a long time jumped from the New York Times to become a sports reporter at ESPN. It’s not really a mystery, given Silver’s love for sports and outsider status at the fossilized Times. As Public Editor Margaret Sullivan put it, “A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. … They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.”
Not long ago that political reporters were more or less the top of the journalistic heap and sports writers were at the bottom. Silver’s new gig turns that upside down. It’s not a mystery given how much political writing is horserace driven and sports reporters have become the true celebrities of the biz. But there is much more to it than that. I believe Silver’s popularity brilliantly displays what journalism must be for a new generation.
Here is my obituary praising Silver’s career as a political journalist, written not as the end of Silver but as the end of good political reporting – for now.
Everyone who cares about political journalism has an opinion about Silver. It wasn’t just that he called the election or that he used actual math – many reporters do that. There was so much more to his skill that will be missed in a world dominated by pundits who truly are, as Silver called it, “fundamentally useless.” And it wasn’t just that he was good – he was popular among a new generation of people clearly reaching out for a new standard of excellence. Many people are hungry for what he provided and made him into the first celebrity journalist of his type in a long time.
It’s worth looking deeply at what made Silver so popular. Here is my take:
Reality – It wasn’t just about the data, even though Silver’s ability to analyze it was second to no one. He was first and foremost a journalist seeking the truth. Lazy reporters can just go off and gather quotes from opposing sides and call it “news”, but Silver wanted more than that.
As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post said, “Silver’s model doesn’t mainly run on polls (it becomes poll heavy as the election nears and the polls become more predictive). It uses ideology and incumbency and economic growth.” Data is just part of the equation. Silver looked for what was going to be predictive because it influenced voters and mattered to them.
Context – Silver didn’t just throw numbers at his readers, he explained them. They were woven into a narrative, a coherent story that had an arc to it and reached towards a definite conclusion on election day. In a sense, it’s more like sports reporting in that it respects the two-minute warning as much as the moments that make up the middle of the game. It all comes down to who wins, and the story is about reaching inside and finding what it takes to get there. Context, the story itself, takes the dry data and brings it alive.
As Silver’s new boss John Kosner said, “”If we just had the raw data, we’d be powerless. We’re making [on the fly] decisions, and that’s because the data is available in a way we can use.” Silver has been hired to build the context that makes the pile of numbers meaningful – and exciting. All reporting is much more than who, what, when, where, and how. It’s always about the context that makes it into a story.
Accessibility – What really made Silver a star, however, was how generous he was with his time and willingness to embrace his star power on the Daily Show and on the web. Forbes said it best: “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times. Silver is the prototype of the kind of entrepreneurial, cross-platform audience-magnet around whom the paper has sought to build franchises.”
It wasn’t just that Silver’s work appeared on the centerpiece of social media, a blog. It was how he embraced all media as a vehicle for his message that political reporting as we have come to know it. In a strange sense he was a modern day Hemmingway, a journalist bon vivant even though his prose was nowhere near as colorful or moving. He was humble and open – exactly the skills that make all media, social and broadcast/legacy, work.
How much will we miss Nate Silver? That depends entirely on who steps up to take his place and how they make their way through the media landscape. I happen to think that Silver’s style and methods spoke to a very hungry audience and media would be stupid to ignore his popularity. Let’s see how that plays out.